Each year in the Palmetto State, thousands of South Carolinians and their families spend millions on assisted care facilities.
Surprisingly, some of these places are causing state health inspectors lots of trouble, and the people living in some of these places are living in filth.
Vicki McGahee and Brenda Stalzer spent months visiting more than 30 residential care homes across the state. They went in to inspect the living conditions, life and safety features, and the overall quality of life these facilities provide for the state's poor and disabled.
What they found wasn't good.
Stalzer and McGahee work for a unit called Protection and Advocacy, a group that helps DHEC inspect residential care homes. They just released a report of what they found -- unsafe, crowded and cluttered recreation areas, rotting seating, poor maintenance, filthy pillows and bed sheets, and residents crammed into tight rooms with very little personal space.
Then there's unclean bathrooms and residents living with roach infestations.
Stalzer visited every single home in the report.
"It's awful. It's heartbreaking," said Stalzer. "In the beginning, it's hard to keep going. I thought, how am I going to keep doing this job because it was so heartbreaking, but knowing that we're trying to make a difference, we do see changes and that's what keeps us going."
There are 477 residential care homes in South Carolina and 17,000 people live in them. The residents pay more than $1,100 a month to live in these facilities, but are they getting what they're paying for?
We went to four homes where inspectors found serious problems. We wanted to see the latest health inspection. The law says that report is supposed to be posted for public inspection.
Our first stop was Southern Heritage in West Columbia. We immediately asked for Jonathan Douglas, Sr., the home's owner.
A nurse in the lobby said Douglas was not in the building at the time. Moments later, another nurse appeared with a telephone and Douglas at the other end of the line.
So where was the report?
"It's being worked on," said Douglas.
DHEC inspected Douglas' facility three weeks ago, and records show agents found live roaches inside a cabinet next to the microwave and in the refrigerator. They also found resident records and medication record-keeping violations.
The owner never allowed us to see his report.
Next, we visited Miles Residential Care Home on Koon Store Road near Blythewood. We saw trouble from the start with the DHEC food inspection grade of "C" posted on the door.
We saw cluttered sitting areas for residents, a back room used as storage, and a nearly-blocked wheel chair ramp -- all violations. We never saw they administrator, or owner Betty Miles before leaving a business card in the door, asking for a call back. That call never came.
Our third stop led us to a woman DHEC inspectors described as "combative and rude." She's Lilliam Jamison, owner of Robin's Residential Care on Hyatt Street in North Columbia.
DHEC tried to inspect Jamison's facility last fall, but inspectors reported she wouldn't turn over those records, then refused to allow inspectors back inside her facility. That was last October. DHEC records show six months later, inspectors still haven't been allowed inside.
We went back to the facility to see the health inspection, but Jamison still would not show us those records.
DHEC Director Catherine Templeton says it's a violation if a residential care home won't show their latest inspection to the public.
"There's a law that requires the license be up," said Templeton.
It's one of the only ways people know what they're getting into and Templeton says not being able to see it says plenty.
"If you go into a nursing home or a residential care facility and they're not readily happy to give you their last inspection report, or to show you their license, I think you can pretty much count them out," said Templeton. "That's not where you want to put your parent."
Our last stop was Carson's Community Care in Blythewood. It's where inspectors took a picture of the roach infestation under a sink. It's the only place we visited last week willing to show us their records. Owner Annie Carson went one step further and showed us around.
"Up under this sink, we had a couple roach baits up under here, which have been corrected," said Carson.
Months later, Carson has fixed the roach problem. DHEC records show she has fixed all of the issues inspectors had with the facility.
Is the facility clean? Definitely, says Carson.
"I would think so," said Carson. "At least we try to keep it as clean as possible."
Inspectors say cases like Annie Carson don't always end with full compliance and a willingness to change.
Choosing one of these facilities will take some tough research, that's because these DHEC inspection records aren't posted online. You either have to file a Freedom of Information Act request with DHEC, or like we did, visit each home and hope they show these reports to you.